Bringing the Past to Life: Geography professor, student study on historic Southern plantations

 

Armstrong Assistant Professor of Geography Amy Potter is helping bring the past to life through groundbreaking research on historic Southern plantations.

“Plantations are powerful symbols of the South,” she says, noting that until recently, slavery was often not mentioned on plantation home tours, some of which attract up to 200,000 visitors a year. Recently, a number of plantations have incorporated replicas of slave quarters or even billed themselves as slave museums.

In an effort to offer a deeper understanding of Southern plantation culture, Potter joined a three-year collaborative research project entitled, “Transformation of American Southern Commemorative Landscapes,” in conjunction with a handful of other geographers at universities across the South. 

Funded by a $445,000 grant from the National Science Foundation, the multi-year study will compare three major plantation regions including the Lowcountry area of coastal Georgia and South Carolina, the James River area in Virginia and the River Road District in southern Louisiana. 

Potter, who joined Armstrong in 2013, and her student-research assistant, Ashley Gholston, a sophomore majoring in middle grade studies, conducted owner and tour guide interviews in the River Road region this past March in an attempt to understand the variety of actors associated with plantation house museums. They surveyed tourists regarding their expectations and asked docents how they discuss slavery on their tours.

“We want to understand how slavery is addressed,” says Potter. “How are they representing it and incorporating it?”

With nearly a 1,000 pieces of data collected from a recent trip to Louisiana, Potter can begin to look at broader questions.

“Are we only going to look at hoop skirts and live oaks or are we going to address the atrocities that happened here?” she asks. “I think it’s important to talk about.  We have to look at the legacies of slavery. It manifests in the present when we don’t deal with our past.”

Current findings will not only make their way back to the plantations and into conferences and journal publishing, but as a course in the classroom.

“I bring this research into my Cultural Geography class,” Potter says. “I want students to start seeing how landscapes and monuments tell a certain history and certain peoples’ stories. Monuments and tour sites are all important for national and local identity. I want them to think about who’s left out. There’s a politics to who we remember.”

For 19-year-old Ashley, participating in research and assisting with Potter’s long-term study is a golden opportunity.

“Being able to get out in the field and get the real-world experience is amazing,” she notes. “It was very educational because I put methods from class into practice.”